Imagine if Gerald Ford had been a two-way star for powerhouse University of Michigan teams under the conditions and scrutiny of the 21st Century instead of what existed from 1932-34?
Maybe then he might have foregone a chance to coach at Yale University and eventually attend law school there, opting for $200 a game in the NFL. But we might never have known what kind of service Ford would offer to first his West Michigan Congressional district, and then eventually to the nation at large, during an honorable 28-year stay in Washington, D.C.
Instead, the only time Ford played against an NFL side was in the annual College All-Star Game to kick off the 1935 season; that team of standouts beat the Chicago Bears 5-0. Thirty-nine summers later, the wisdom of his choice crystallized when he became this nation’s 38th President.
The future President Ford came of age in a time when the allure of the NFL wasn’t enough to compel some players to forestall real life for a few more years on the gridiron. A year after Ford bypassed a pair of NFL offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, the league held its first draft. Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger went to the Philadelphia Eagles and signed with them, but saw his rights traded to the Chicago Bears. Berwanger and the Bears couldn’t come to an accord, so he went to work as a foam-rubber salesman before eventually becoming a sportswriter, a Naval officer and an entrepreneur.
(Interestingly enough, Ford tackled Berwanger in a 1934 game between Michigan and the University of Chicago. “When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it,” the President would later remember.)
To alter the conditions around Ford’s choice from those of the Great Depression to the ones that exist today is to irrevocably change one of the most crucial junctures in American history.
Who knows if the person asked to fill the Oval Office in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation would have brought the same kind of dignity and honesty to the office that the former lineman did?
Indeed, Ford went about his job as chief executive in a manner befitting the position at which he excelled four decades before taking the oath of office from Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1974. Much can be discussed about his policies or his actions in the Oval Office; his character and decency, however, was beyond debate and above reproach.
To think, all that might not have happened had he chosen to eschew a shot at law school for an NFL career. He might have become a Pro Football Hall of Famer had he gone to the NFL; his play for the Wolverines certainly offered the potential for greatness on the sport’s loftiest plateau.
But he might not have done nearly as much in his life after football.
To the President who came the closest to playing in the National Football League … rest in peace, and thank you from a still-grateful nation.